The theme was black on a beautiful November day as hundreds gathered to mourn and highlight the plight of relatives and friends facing persecution in Iraq.
The Black March drew nearly 1,500 Iraqi Christians to demonstrate and pray for action Monday in downtown Chicago. SAWRA helped to organize the local rally, which joined others in Phoenix, Detroit, London, Sydney and elsewhere around the globe.
We wanted to send a very clear message that we're still paying attention to Iraq," said Waleeta Canon, treasurer of the Assyrian American National Coalition (AANC) in Washington and a member of SAWRA. "We're not going to be quiet until we know that Assyrians and other Christians are living safely and securely."
Canon's comments came after more than 50 Iraqi Christians were killed inside a church in central Baghdad on Oct. 31. Congregants were held hostage for several hours before their captors–gunmen from the Islamic State of Iraq–opened fire and detonated bombs as police raided the building to end the standoff.
The rally was organized on a global scale in less than six days, Cannon noted. "It was a whirlwind of activity," she said. "It was really a youth effort in all of the cities, which is actually rare in the Assyrian community."
Plans for the march got underway last week as soon as the local Assyrian community learned about the deadly attack. Niles North High School's Assyrian Club was among those involved. Patch reported on it–click here for story. Part of the effort included busing participants from Skokie and elsewhere to assemble in front of the James R. Thompson Center in downtown Chicago.
On Monday, a few hundred demonstrators swelled to thousands during the course of the afternoon rally. High school students, couples with children and senior citizens were among those who took part in the event.
Symbolic start to rally
The rally started with a moment of silence as more than a dozen SAWRA members laid on the ground in red-stained clothing alongside body bags to symbolize those killed inside the church.
"I think it's always a good thing--about having a visual--so people can see what's happening, get a real sense of what's going on," said Rachil Zaia, who was among those representing the dead. "I hope people really realize what's going on in Iraq. I'm confused as many people are--I just want some answers."
For some, the simulated carnage was too much. Several rallygoers broke down on their hands and knees screaming as they saw Zaia and others lying still on the cold earth.
Even though more than 1,000 people attended the rally, several participants felt it wasn't enough.
"I'm kind of disappointed," Marrian Macksud, 21, said about the turnout. "I think there should be a lot more numbers. Especially in Chicago, there are so many Assyrians."
John Borto, a 29-year-old from of Morton Grove, agreed with Macksud. "There more people that show up at Assyrian weddings," Borto said. "We know that there's a lot more Assyrians in the city."
The largest U.S. concentration of Assyrians is in the Chicago area, according to Vasili Shoumanov, author of Assyrians in Chicago. A large portion of those Assyrians live in the suburban communities of Skokie, Niles and Morton Grove.
Although Iraq is largely made up of Muslims, a small portion of the population is Christian, with many falling into the Assyrian, Chaldean or Syrian faith.
Rita Jacob, who recently emigrated from Iraq to the U.S., was friends with four of the people who were killed inside the Baghdad church. Moments before her speech, the petite Jacob was shaking, yet she managed to get in front of the microphone and tell her story.
"I've been writing this speech for a couple of days, and it really doesn't matter," Jacob said as she cried and ripped up her speech. "It won't bring nobody back. Do you even need a bigger wake-up call than this?
"It hurts because were only 28-years-old. I can't handle this anymore. I'm not the same person. Just seeing my Christian people die, it hurts."
Christians number about 800,000 in Iraq, or about 3 percent of the nation's estimated 29 million people, according to the CIA World Factbook. Assyrians are among minor ethnic groups that comprise about 5 percent of the population.
And an estimated 66 percent of the country's Christian population have fled Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, according to a 2007 article by Radio Free Europe.
At the rally those in front of the microphone weren't the only ones fighting back their grief.
Skokie resident Mores Hawel was standing in the crowd holding a photo of Wissem Sabeh, a friend who was among the priests killed during the Oct. 31 massacre.
"I knew him in Iraq; we used to work together," Hawel said. "I think he tried to with the terrorists as much as he could." Hawel said he moved to Skokie 13 months ago because "much of my family lives there."
Ultimately, almost 1,500 Iraqi Christians navigated through downtown streets and passed construction sites to the nearby Federal Plaza, where they chanted, "Freedom we demand! In our homeland."
A few SAWRA members went inside the Kluczynski Federal Building to hand Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) a letter the group had written. At press time, it's unclear whether the group personally spoke with the senator before leaving.
Canon of the AANC concluded her rally speech with a special note for the young people in the crowd. "I especially would like to thank the Assyrian youth of Chicago," she said. "Within 24 hours of the attack, they took control of the protest.
"I'm very, very impressed with the young Assyrians that have taken control of the situation here. It's fully self-funded by them and a lot have taken time away from their jobs and school ." Social media also provided crucial momentum for the Chicago rally. Facebook groups helped to orchestrate the day's events for many of the high school students at Niles West and Niles North. Their efforts, which did not go unnoticed, reached as far as the North Side of Chicago.
Hours before the rally, high school students gathered at the Assyrian National Council of Illinois' offices in Skokie. Fueled on doughnuts and coffee, they put the finishing touches on the rally's main props: the body bags.
The group stuffed black garbage bags with newspapers and splattered red paint on white T-shirts. Each bag represented a life lost in the Oct. 31 church attack in Baghdad.
"There were about 85 students from Niles North and Niles West high schools who participated in today's event," said Arbela Baba, a Skokie native and member of SAWRA, which means hope in Assyrian. Niles West junior Akadia Rasho, 16, said she was inspired to attend the Black March when she saw videos on Facebook.
"I've been to Assyrian protests before and I've seen nothing like this," Rasho said. "For something that was organized this short, I think it's amazing."
Her friends couldn't agree more.
"If it wasn't for Facebook I don't think half of the people here would have attended," said Ramin Nano, 15.
"There were invitations asking if you were going to attend the rally and all you had to do was hit 'yes," Christian David, 17, said about how he learned of Monday's demonstration.
CHICAGO, Illinois — After Natasha Shino heard about the killing of more than 50 Iraqi Christians in Baghdad last week, she knew she couldn't sit idly by.
"It just hit home," said the 23-year-old Assyrian Christian student who lives in the South Loop.
A minority in Muslim Iraq, Assyrians are Christian -- among the first people to accept the faith -- and do not consider themselves Arab. Forced to assimilate to Arab culture, many Assyrians have fled Iraq.
"We're going through a silent genocide," Shino said. "We are near extinction."
Worldwide, Shino and other young Assyrians have joined forces to organize rallies Monday calling on the American and Iraqi governments to protect Iraqi Christians.
Dubbed "The Black March" because protesters will wear all black, the Chicago rally will start at noon at the Thompson Center, 100 W. Randolph St. Thousands of Facebook members have said they plan to attend similar rallies in other cities. According to 2000 census data, there are approximately 16,000 Assyrians in Illinois. But local Assyrian leaders say there are closer to 100,000 in the Chicago area.
Organizers, like Shino, said they've reached out to people of all faiths, including Jews, Muslims and other Christian groups, including Chaldean Catholics who have common roots in ancient Mesopotamia, to stand in solidarity with the victims of an Oct. 31 attack on a Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad.
Al-Qaida militants reportedly took 120 worshipers hostage during an evening Mass commemorating the church's anniversary. The attack ended with at least 58 people dead after security forces stormed the church. At least 75 were wounded.
At Mar Gewargis Cathedral, an Assyrian church more commonly known as St. George's in Rogers Park, on Sunday, the Rev. Paulus Benjamin called for parishioners to pray for peace. The church's liturgy is said in Assyrian, an ancient language with roots in Aramaic.
Dozens of churchgoers bowed and silently spoke with God.
Among them was Ayad Khider, who lost his 50-year-old cousin, Salah Gerges, a father of three, in the Oct. 31 attack. His cousin's wife was injured in the attack and is in critical condition, he said in Arabic through a translator.
"We pray that she will be OK because who will take care of the children?" said Khider, 51, a mechanic who lives on the North Side.
In a letter dated Nov. 1, Mar Dinkha IV, the patriarch of the Chicago-based Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, demanded that the Iraqi government and the United Nations protect all Iraqi minorities.
Many at the church said they plan to attend the Monday rally to show support for their "brothers and sisters" still in Iraq.
"We are united with them," said Mary Yonan, 52, a teacher from the North Side. "We can be their voices here."
The spirit mixed with the courage and dedication of our people was proven to be ignited today. An estimated number of 2000 people who shared the same cause, the same values, and the same destiny gathered together, stood side by side, and spoke carrying one goal on their mind, to make their voice heard and their suffering understood. Among our people, there were also some friends who shared with us the same values, among these were the Armenians, Muslims, Greeks, Lebanese, and other Americans.
This was a night that we as Assyrians, Caldeans, and Syriacs should be proud of from the day it was organized all through the day it was fulfilled. Many thanks go to the Assyrian Youth of Chicago for their outstanding management and their dedication and perseverance in order to make this event a successful activity.
Many thanks also go to AANC which played a huge role in this event, and with their help and leadership were able to secure positive results and minimizing the gap for negative attitude.
The last but not the least, many thanks at the same time go to all our Assyrian people, young and old, men and women, who attended this event, who donated their valuable time for this valuable cause, who stood, walked, yield, screamed, and shouted from their heart until their throats were dry and their voices were stiff.
We hope that our Nation will not go through such a cruel and bloody massacre again, and we wish that whoever was responsible or behind to this killing will repent and will never do it again.
Khoobi Wa-Eeqari Long Live Assyria the Beautiful Polous Gewargis
\ã-'sir-é-ä\ n (1998)
1: an ancient empire of Ashur
2: a democratic state in Bet-Nahren, Assyria (northern
Iraq, northwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey and eastern Syria.)
a democratic state that fosters the social and political rights to all of
its inhabitants irrespective of their religion, race, or gender
4: a democratic state that believes in the freedom of
religion, conscience, language, education and culture in faithfulness to the
principles of the United Nations Charter —
Ethnicity, Religion, Language
Israeli, Jewish, Hebrew
Assyrian, Christian, Aramaic
Saudi Arabian, Muslim, Arabic
\ã-'sir-é-an\ adj or n (1998)
1: descendants of the ancient empire of Ashur
2: the Assyrians, although representing but one single
nation as the direct heirs of the ancient Assyrian Empire, are now
doctrinally divided, inter sese, into five principle
ecclesiastically designated religious sects with their corresponding
hierarchies and distinct church governments, namely, Church of the
East, Chaldean, Maronite, Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic.
These formal divisions had their origin in the 5th century of the
Christian Era. No one can coherently understand the Assyrians
as a whole until he can distinguish that which is religion or church
from that which is nation -- a matter which is particularly
difficult for the people from the western world to understand; for
in the East, by force of circumstances beyond their control,
religion has been made, from time immemorial, virtually into a
criterion of nationality.
the Assyrians have been referred to as Aramaean, Aramaye, Ashuraya,
Ashureen, Ashuri, Ashuroyo, Assyrio-Chaldean, Aturaya, Chaldean,
Chaldo, ChaldoAssyrian, ChaldoAssyrio, Jacobite, Kaldany, Kaldu,
Kasdu, Malabar, Maronite, Maronaya, Nestorian, Nestornaye, Oromoye,
Suraya, Syriac, Syrian, Syriani, Suryoye, Suryoyo and Telkeffee. —
1: a Semitic language which became the lingua franca of
the Middle East during the ancient Assyrian empire.
2: has been referred to as Neo-Aramaic, Neo-Syriac, Classical
Syriac, Syriac, Suryoyo, Swadaya and Turoyo.